Who is Jesus of Nazareth? This is a question that comes up over and over as we study scriptures. Those who have been participating in our Wednesday evening study of the gospel of Mark will hear Jesus ask the question “Who do you say I am?” in this week’s readings. Those who have been participating in our Pilgrim study wrestled this past week with who is Jesus in relationship to the statement God is one found in the Shema, the Jewish statement of faith and found in the summary of the law given by Jesus in Mark where he quotes passages from Deuteronomy and Leviticus back to back.
Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’” (NRSV Mark: 12: 29-31)
Jesus affirms the oneness of God. He will speak of God in the third person, praying to God and calling God his father. At the same time, in John 10: 30 he states, “The Father and I are one.” And on numerous other occasions he will use “I am” statements that drew the attention of the crowd to the sacred name of God that was given to Moses.
C.S. Lewis reminds us that Jesus cannot be just a wise man given the things he said about himself. If you consider the number of times he claims to be one with God he either is who he says he is, he is delusional in need of a psychiatrist, or he is what the Sanhedrin claimed, a wicked blasphemer . You must choose between these statements or disregard half of what Jesus said.
Luke tells us very early in his gospel, that Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel.
Jesus has just been baptized, been tempted in the wilderness and has returned to Galilee, the region where he grew up. Luke tells us “he began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” (Luke 4:15) In the first century, the synagogue was a place the men gathered to study the sacred writings. At this time, the term “rabbi” just meant teacher. There were some very famous rabbis who ran schools at this time, but it does not become a licensed vocation until later.
Jesus was in his hometown of Nazareth, and he is asked to read the scriptures and lead the discussion. In today’s gospel reading, he is given the scroll of Isaiah and opens it to chapter 61.
The scroll of Isaiah begins with the writings of the prophet Isaiah himself who preached in Judah shortly before the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE into the beginning of the next century . His oracles began by condemning the conduct of both Judah and Israel, but also promising the hope of a savior. The scroll of Isaiah contains later writings which include songs and oracles that prophesied the Babylonian captivity, the promise of restoration, the description of the suffering servant, and a description of the day when God vindicates the righteous and restores a faithful in “the new heavens and the new earth” (Isaiah 66:22). Isaiah is not a history of the people, but a collection of poems, songs, oracles, and meditations that cover a particular period in the history of a particular people.
The section that Jesus chose to read implies that the person speaking is either the prophet or the suffering servant described earlier in the scroll. “The spirit of the LORD GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me.” Anointing was done to prophets, priests, and kings. In choosing this passage and then responding, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus is suggesting that he is either a prophet, priest, or king and early Christians will conclude that he is all three.
The speaker in Isaiah claims that he is anointed for a specific purpose “to bring good news to the poor. “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus is declaring himself to be the long anticipated Messiah.
Toward the end of his ministry, Peter will proclaim in Caesarea Philippi, that Jesus is the Messiah. If he was trying to get people to understand this early in his ministry why would Jesus then tell the disciples not to tell anyone?
I think he may have had two reasons. The first, the word Messiah automatically conjured up a vision for people of a man like King David. There was an expectation that he would lead a great army in battle against the Roman Empire and Herod and take his rightful place on the throne of a restored Israel. Jesus had more in mind the person Moses described as one like himself who would lead the people in a new exodus. Jesus uses the term exodus when discussing his upcoming crucifixion with Moses and Elijah at the transfiguration. This exodus would not be across the Jordon River but across the River Styx, the river of death. The second reason Jesus may have not wanted them to tell everyone he was the Messiah was because he was carefully crafting his passion to occur at a specific time and in a specific way to have a specific outcome and to maximize the spiritual symbolism attached to it. He did not want to have crowds of people trying to force him to be king, they had done that once already, nor did he want to bring himself to the attention of Rome or Herod before the time was right.
I mentioned last week that the earliest creed of the church was “Jesus is Lord.” This is always the starting point. If you don’t agree, you won’t care about the rest. But among those who did make this profession, discussion arose concerning just who Jesus was because of the impact that certain definitions of Jesus had on humans. It was in response to these discussions that we ended up with the Apostles creed that we will say in a moment and the more fully articulated Nicene Creed we say at the Eucharist.
It was important to establish that Jesus is fully God. If Jesus is not God, Jesus does not have the power to save us, he does not have the authority to judge us. Jesus was not, like the stories of many of the pagan demi gods, half human-half God, he was the Incarnation of the one God by the Holy Spirit in human flesh through his mother Mary .
Jesus is fully man. Not just vaguely man, not a god walking around in a human suit, but a specific man that was born and died at a specific time in history. Only because he was fully human could he serve as a model of the perfect man and understand the challenges we face as human beings. He did not skip the struggles of childhood, but grew up just like the rest of us, and died in the most horrifying way imaginable, yet he was able to forgive those who betrayed, tortured, and killed him.
Only by dying and conquering death could Jesus illustrate for us with his own life what Resurrection was. Only by facing his betrayers and offering them his Peace could he show us what true forgiveness is. Jesus became the first born of a new creation and then beckoned us to follow him. He is, indeed, prophet, priest, and king as he claimed by choosing Isaiah 61 and tying that prophecy to himself.
Over time and more in an effort to say what the unity of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit is not than to fully articulate who God is the church began using the terminology of the Trinity. The concept is found throughout the New Testament and Christians will argue it is there in the Old Testament and well, but the word Trinity is not used until later.
The question you must answer is the one Jesus asked the disciples. “Who do you say that I am?”